The leading Democratic figures during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings were presumed 2020 presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Both grandstanded to great applause from Democratic partisans, but failed to nick the nomination. The two young guns made a lot of noise, but it was an older, wiser woman who with a single shot turned a hopeless situation for Democrats into a big potential political win.
Dianne Feinstein was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, the original “year of the woman.” During the previous year, Clarence Thomas had been confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s allegations that he had sexually harassed her. The Democrats used the anger many women felt at those proceedings to elect a record number of women to Congress. It’s a play that Feinstein knows well and helped invent. This week, she called that play again.
The timing of Feinstein’s release of information regarding the initially anonymous woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault was simply impeccable. Democrats knew they had no reasonable chance of stopping his confirmation, but Feinstein, a savvy and old-school politician, found a way to turn lemons into lemonade. Feinstein may have wrought a political masterpiece.
It is very likely that Feinstein knew in July, when her constituent sent the allegation to her, that it was so lacking in any kind of detail and backup that it could not derail Kavanaugh. But that didn’t mean that the allegations from Christine Blasey Ford could not be politically useful.
By releasing the information at the last hour, Feinstein put Republicans on the judiciary committee and the White House in a catch-22. They could either vociferously defend Kavanaugh and look like they were once again defending an abuser of women, or throw him under the bus and have to scramble to nominate and confirm a new nominee.
If, as increasingly appears to be the case, the GOP stands behind Kavanaugh in the face of this allegation, Feinstein has created a Me Too moment that Democrats can campaign on in their attempt to take back Congress, just as she did in 1992. It is, in a word, brilliant. One can almost see Mitch McConnell smiling and fist-bumping her, saying, “Well played, Di.”
Kavanaugh Is Beside The Point
When Feinstein dropped the anonymous accusation last week, it rightfully seemed like a long shot at thwarting confirmation. But once Ford not only went public, but through an attorney offered to testify under oath, the tide started to turn. By Tuesday morning many, even on the right, believed this would be a spectacle that Republicans didn’t want, and that Kavanaugh would not survive.
As word came down Tuesday night that Ford is actually not ready to testify, the pendulum swung back. The swing votes in the GOP, especially Susan Collins, have made it all but clear that without Ford’s testimony they will vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
Feinstein might have relished the idea of Kavanaugh withdrawing and the chaos that would cause, and could still happen, but she created a win-win situation. His confirmation will be even more cause for progressive outrage. Now, Democrats are free to run campaigns alleging that the woman-hating GOP didn’t give Ford a fair shake and instead sided with yet another privileged white man.
This tweet from Kristen Gillibrand sets the tone we are likely to see until November.
What Republicans are doing to Dr. Ford is shameful. By refusing to treat her allegations properly and by playing games to protect Kavanaugh’s nomination, they're telling women across the country that they're not to be believed.
That they are worth less than a man’s promotion.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) September 19, 2018
Democrats will have no shortage of cable news personalities ready to promote that narrative. Already many are predicting that suburban women, particularly white women, whose votes the GOP needs will be swayed by the bad optics. This may be slightly overblown. It’s possible that women don’t vote based on things like “optics” any more than men do, but it will absolutely excite the pink hat brigades and likely bring more of them to the polls.
Tough Spot For The GOP
If Kavanaugh is confirmed, Republicans will have to tread very carefully, as they have been already. Even Donald Trump has been so shockingly appropriate and presidential in regard to the allegations that we might wonder who he is, and what he’s done with the actual president.
Just days before the election in late October, Kavanaugh will be seated on the court, no doubt to a loud chorus of wails and gnashing of teeth. What would otherwise be a full-throated conservative celebration of reshaping the court as promised will have to be a more muted affair, peppered with promises that the concerns surrounding Ford’s allegations were carefully mulled.
The best path forward for Republicans is the one they are already on. They must be somber and dignified. But this is 2018, and it’s a good bet that dignity may lose to outrage.
None of this is to say that Senate Republicans had any better choice than the one they pursued. Kavanaugh could have been thrown under the bus in a “believe all women” gesture, but that would also have pumped up the Democratic base with hopes of taking the Senate and holding off any confirmation.
Feinstein’s political ploy here is deeply cynical, and speaks ill of the health of the Senate as a deliberative body. Everything she did in handling this allegation appears to have been done in bad faith with an eye towards harming Kavanaugh’s chances and legacy and providing momentum for another year of the woman wave.
In 1992, Feinstein was the Democratic future of Senate. Today that future resides with senators like Booker, Harris, and Gillibrand. They just received a master class from Feinstein on political calculation and manipulation. This is not something that America should feel proud about, but it is our current reality.
If some measure of decency and bipartisanship is not soon restored to our political institutions, it could become a future that is even worse. If this ploy works, and the Democrats get their wave, expect that future to arrive very soon.